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The Most Famous Poem in English: The Sick Rose by William Blake

icon02By Jacqueline Schaalje

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I really love my job when I can get people to read. I have more success with this when students already read in their own language. Just recently, I got a Russian gentleman to read poems by William Blake. Although he loves literature and reads Molière for breakfast, he had never heard of this famous romantic poet. (Is William Blake not translated into Russian — does anyone know this?)

William Blake is one of my favourite poets but what makes his poetry interesting for students is that the language is not very complicated. Whether the meaning of these poems is simple or difficult, I leave this up to you to decide.

My Russian student started by reading “The Sick Rose,” which is one of the best-known English poems of all time.

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

 

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

 

Let’s just go over each line, and explain the basic meaning of the words:

Title: Sick is another word for ill here; suffering from a disease.

First stanza:

Line 1: Thou is an old-fashioned form of you. (And thy in the last line means your.)

Art is an old form of are.

A rose is a kind of flower, as you probably know (see picture).

So line 1 says: O rose, you are ill.

Line 2: A worm is the little animal that birds like to eat. They can also be found eating your apple or lettuce.

Invisible means you can’t see it.

Line 4: Howling means crying. When the wind blows hard, you can hear it howling around the house or in the trees. A person in pain or in despair may also be howling.

Second stanza:

Line 5: Has found out = discovered.

Thy = your.

Bed can also be a flowerbed, which is the soil where a flower or plant grows. But it could also refer to the petals of the rose that are like a comfortable bed for the worm.

Line 6: Crimson is deep red. When someone is ashamed or when they blush, you can say they turn crimson. In other contexts, this word isn’t used much.

Line 7: Dark is the opposite of light. It also has a connotation of things that should be kept in the dark, because they are secret, corrupt or dirty.

Line 8: Does thy life destroy = Destroys your life. The poet has changed the word order to improve the sound of the poem.

So what’s this poem about?

You decide. I don’t like to tell you what to think. You might like to know that there have been various interpretations. The Sick Rose could be about sex corrupting love, or about adultery, or about love that dies. But let’s not forget the literal meaning: this poem is about a worm destroying a rose!

Important for you to know is that this poem is part of a collection called Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poet meant for these songs (poems) to show two sides of the soul. The Songs of Innocence are meant to present a joyous and childlike side of looking at the world. But the experienced look in the Songs of Experience show suffering and violence and things that aren’t so nice in the world and that, sad to say, haven’t improved much since Blake’s day. So what do you think: Is The Sick Rose part of the Songs of Innocence, or part of the Songs of Experience? You can check your answer at the bottom of this page.

Background about Blake

After you’ve read The Sick Rose, you’ll probably want to know a bit more about the poet and when this poem was written. William Blake lived from 1757 to 1827, and was the first romantic poet in England. The Romantic Period in art is when artists started experimenting with new forms and themes, searching for limitless expression of the self and the way they saw the world. If you read poetry from the period before, the Neoclassical Period, you will see a striking difference with that of the Romantic Period. Romantic poetry is concerned with feelings of the individual, whereas poetry from the Neoclassical Period will sound very reasonable and is usually constrained (= put in a form) in strict rhyme. Although Blake’s The Sick Rose doesn’t talk about a poet’s feelings as such, it sounds spontaneous and radical. It sounds as if the poet took out his pen and just wrote this poem in 5 minutes. It has a few rough edges. This makes it a typical romantic poem.

By the way, Blake was also a talented painter and engraver. He made illustrations and etchings for his books; many of which you will find in museums around the world. He actually meant for his poems to be published and read together with the illustration. But because the process of etching was so much work, he only produced a handful of copies. Of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, for instance, only 28 copies are known to exist. If you find one at home, you are now rich!

Here are two different versios of The Sick Rose:

rose1rose2

If you have time, I’d recommend you to read all of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It’s only a thin volume. I often lend my copy to students and they all love Blake. His poems are beautiful and easy to read; for a good part of them you won’t even need a dictionary. And they’re full of interesting metaphors and ideas, that are relevant today. Here is a link to the book.

If you’re interested in the artwork, a collection is available here. (Click on the links to see the slides.)

Answer to the question: The Sick Rose is part of the Songs of Experience.

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